The Mexican-American actor from Los Angeles, California, is known for his tough guy roles in more than 180 films, but off screen Trejo may be tougher than the characters he plays.
“At about 15 years old, I got hit in the mouth with a [car] jack and didn’t break any teeth or get knocked out,” says Trejo, known for his prominent chest tattoo of a woman wearing a sombrero, which was voted most recognizable in the world by International Tattoo Magazine. “My chin was pretty good. That was in the street though. You couldn’t bring that jack in the ring.”
Trejo was inked at the notorious Folsom and San Quentin prisons, where he won lightweight and welterweight boxing titles. He won belts in every penitentiary he was ever incarcerated in—at least seven—throughout much of the 1960’s.
“In San Quentin, I fought for the lightweight title. I was 137 pounds, the champ was about 149 pounds,” says Trejo with a laugh that sounds like rattling ammunition. “Weight didn’t really matter. Neither did rules—I think I won with an elbow.”
He learned how to box as his uncle Gilbert’s punching bag—not sparring partner—while Gilbert trained for Golden Gloves. It served him well for boxing in prison, switching between a boxer and a slugger when battling ex-professionals on their A-game (pros would also stop in and train with prisoners at the time). His hardest opponent was a “little Marine” during a welterweight championship bout in San Quentin.
“He must have had some Mexican in him because he had that left hook to the body that the Mexicans always throw, and the left going to the body—Cesar Chavez used to do that real good. He hit me with that thing so many times I was begging him to hit me in the face,”says Trejo. “I think I won that one with an elbow too.”
TINSELTOWN TOUGH GUY
Prize fighting got Trejo onto a Hollywood set for the first time in the early 80’s. An old friend from the joint recognized him and hired him for $350 a day to train actor Eric Roberts to box. Trejo never looked back, sharing the silver screen with everyone from Oscar winners Robert DeNiro and George Clooney to comedians Will Ferrell and Cheech Marin.
Trejo brought former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Rashad Evans and UFC veteran Houston Alexander to the big screen in his latest flick, Vengeance, written and directed by his In the Name Pictures partner Gil Medina.
“I love watching these two guys. I hung around them in Vegas and they’re just a blast to be with,” he says. “It’s amazing, they’ve got as many fans as I’ve got.”
Medina recalls mingling backstage at a UFC event at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas as Trejo went to find his seat.
“The crowd’s going crazy. I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, I missed the fight. Someone got knocked out.’ I ran out … and I look and Danny’s waiving, like the president, like the man.’ The place went crazy. I said, ‘Man, Danny, these guys understand a badass.’”
During his standing obviation, a fan asked Trejo whom he was going to fight. “I’ll fight the ring girl,” he quipped.
Trejo started watching mixed martial arts on TV, preferring slug fests over grappling matches, but he has come to appreciate all aspects of the sport.
“When somebody gets out of a submission hold, when somebody gets out of that, it’s amazing. It’s cool to watch the technique,” he says. “People think just because you’re half-ass tough you can get in there. It has nothing to do with just being tough. You have to have that, but its all about practice, technique, and conditioning.”
Known as “The Illustrated Man” for his distinctive tattoo, Trejo appreciates mixed martial arts’ battle against negative perceptions.
“There’s no doubt about how I look. People get out of my way. So it’s up to me to make them feel at ease around me. These are the most polite, nicest guys you’re ever around,” says the 65-year-old,noting Evans and Alexander were quick to help an elderly woman cross the street. “These guys are cool. If I was that bad, I’d charge everyone 50 cents to walk around.”
Medina met Trejo in 1999 and they have parlayed their mutual film interests into extending aspiring actors—including fighters—a chance on screen. It’s a natural extension when most of Trejo’s movies have weights on set.
“Mixed martial arts is crazy. Are you kidding? People love it,” says Trejo. “It takes three B’s to make a good movie: you have to have broads, bullets, and blood. Mixed martial arts comes in there.”
Trejo paints Vengeance in the same genre as Charles Bronson’s Deathwish franchise. His character’s family is murdered, so audiences identify with his pain as he strives for justice. Medina describes Trejo’s character as the ultimate vigilante.
Also starring in Robert Rodriguez’s Predators and in the title role of Machete, Medina asserts, “This is the beginning of the biggest years for Danny,” as he also works on the Vengeance trilogy. If anyone is going to make people identify with pain, it’s a badass like Danny Trejo.
Trejo went from street tough to silver screen star, but he’s never met an actor willing to step into his world for a few rounds.
“No—they don’t want to spar with me,” says Trejo. “I’ve had to pull a couple of these tough guys in Hollywood aside and [say], ‘Look, I’ll beat your fucking ass.’ All the Hollywood shit is okay, but if you want to get it, I’ll beat your ass.”